by Jim Harris
Just another band out of Boston sang “Don’t Look Back” during its rock ‘n’ roll heyday (circa 1976-87), but forgive for a moment if I look back.
I’d have given about anything for sixth-row tickets to a Boston show some 40 years ago. They played Pine Bluff, my hometown, when I was off at college; they’ve toured with other big pop-rock acts of their era since – Styx, Kansas, et al. – and I’d missed those shows as well.
Fast-forward almost four decades, and Boston mastermind Tom Scholz (MIT grad and genius mind at that) is still taking his band out on the road with five other faces who weren’t there in the 1970s. The show promoter provided those choice sixth-row seats for Wednesday’s show in Verizon Arena. But Boston doesn’t play full-size arenas, much less stadiums, anymore, and Verizon had cut itself down to its theater-format size. It still manages to offer an arena feel inside a space that’s more like Robinson Center across the river.
Boston’s anthem rock may not draw the numbers of the late 1970s shows, but the music is still suited for arenas, though the current “Hyper Space Tour” is hitting small casino show halls and theaters like the Saenger in Mobile, Ala. Verizon snagged a show a day after Boston played the Walmart AMP in Rogers, in fact (3,500 seats under a tent, plus an uncovered grass section). The band brought no opener, just the five musicians who accompany Scholz, the versatile wizard.
Anyway, four decades may have aged Scholz’s face some, but seemingly not his dark hair or the rest of his tall, lanky self. Scholz donned gray cargo shorts and a charcoal sleeveless T that read “Sea Shepherd.” His band had that 50-60-year-old look about them as well, except for the pretty and energetic Beth Cohen, a Miami-based multi-instrumentalist (she stayed mostly on a synth in the background, but occasionally played guitar, even providing twin lead harmony once with Scholz). Cohen also was showcased a couple of times on lead vocals as well as helping provide the high-end harmonies for which the band has long been noted.
Tommy DeCarlo, whose story of joining Boston is not unlike Arnel Pineda’s when he was chosen to be the next Steve Perry in Journey, stood in ably for the late, great Brad Delp (he left us at his own hands in 2007), the voice on all those Boston hits of yesteryear. Only a couple of times did we wince a little when the falsetto eluded DeCarlo, such as on the climax to “Don’t Look Back,” but he was spot-on for the two-plus hour show.
Scholz brought an array of experienced sidemen: Gary Pihl on lead guitar stage left (Scholz stayed stage right) was the perfect complement to Scholz on electric or acoustic guitars, as he’s been since 1985 – and according to Scholz is the only band member besides him who can operate the massive amount of technical wiring, amps and boxes that lined the back stage. For the 1987 hit “Amanda” at the halfway point, they both retreated to the area just in front of drummer Curly Smith’s glass-walled pit with acoustic guitars while DeCarlo showed out on a song he figured help spark romance that resulted in some of the younger fans in the audience. Former Stryper bassist Tracy Ferrie provided a steady thumping to all those thump-heavy rockers. Every Boston band member at times was helping provide the soaring harmonies that made those Scholz-penned anthems stand out among the others beginning in late 1976 with Boston’s massive-selling debut album.
And while Scholz happily let everyone in the band have more than a few moments to self-indulge in a 22-song set and “Party” for its encore, it was hard not to keep eyes focus on his guitar fingering leads or on the time he took to his three-level keyboard/organ setup, placed in back between Cohen’s rig and Smith’s drum kit.
There were videos behind them that referenced Apollo 11 before its launch to the moon, and later the launch itself, plus all kinds of references to space and fiery planets and stars and the like. We guess it was Scholz’s MIT background that was responsible for such album-cover images as the guitar-shaped spaceship. Boston’s music was almost otherworldly when it debuted, and it still is clearly, uniquely Boston, as in the band. Obviously, they were not just another band out of Boston, and a two-thirds full “theater” appreciated nearly every moment.
Scholz, in one of the few moments that one song didn’t move directly into another, introduced one of the “newer” (well, 2013) songs, “Heaven on Earth.” And almost immediately, a crowd that was energized by an opening triad of “Rock and Roll Band,” “Feeling Satisfied” and “Smokin’” began to look for their seats. But that proved only momentary when the fans heard the familiar first acoustic chords of “Peace of Mind,” and off we were again on rockets of power chords, six-part harmonies and twin-guitar leads. Scholz and crew dipped into a deep canon to pull out some less-familiar songs (at least to a few fans around me) from their 1986 “Third Stage” album and 1993’s “Walk On.” “Walk On,” in fact was a symphonic-like tour de force between the big hits, with Scholz going wild on keyboards. But, to play for two-plus hours, they needed more than those treasured albums 1 (“Boston”) and 2 (“Don’t Look Back”) of Boston’s first two years.
As it was, nobody left the arena and into a suddenly chilly April night saying, “I wished they’d played [song name].” Boston played it all, whether you wanted it or not. Most was wanted.